Mundane observations | In ‘Worktown,’ games of chance, snapshots in time

Editor’s note

For additional background, see the 40-minute Worktown documentary by Eloise Whitmore, available in full on the BBC Radio 4 website.

Link to Humphrey Spender's documentary photographs (sport)

Humphrey Spender, “Football crowds after the match,” Burnden Park, Bolton, ca. 1937. Opponent unknown. (Bolton Museums Art Gallery and Aquarium)

Bolton, England | A New Yorker article by Caleb Crain has peaked our interest in the Mass-Observation phenomenon and its relationship to football in Britain. Near the top of Crain’s treatment (see “Surveillance Society,” 11 Sept 06), “Anthropology of football pools” appears, tucked between “The aspidistra cult” and “Bathroom behaviour,” as one of the potential objects of study.

The group conducting this scrutiny of the mundane, aiming to create “weather-maps of public feeling” of everyday Britain in the 1930s and ’40s, took guidance from a triumvirate of leaders but relied on a cadre of volunteer scribblers to assemble data. The study of football pools, according to Crain in a separate conversation on his weblog (see “Mass-Observation in The New Yorker,” 4 Sept 06), appeared as part of one of M-O’s earliest productions, First Year’s Work, 1937–38.

They reported that in the town they surveyed, a third of the population played the pools, and that for purposes of social mingling, the pools were “as essential as smoking and swearing.” There’s even an illustration of a pen-sized device sold at Woolworth’s that generated pool numbers. The Mass-Observation writers seem to have taken a dim view of the pools, which one player described as “like a sort of growth that eats into one,” and thought they preyed on workers’ fantasies of escape. (The inference, I imagine, is that the desires would have been more productive if channeled into the labor movement.) The observers reported, however, that those who played the pools thought that people who opposed them did so because they wanted to keep the working class down. Politicians who attacked the pools in a moral tone were thus doomed to fail, and M-O advised them to pay closer attention.

Link to Mass-Observation Archive The third in a series of Mass-Observation publications, containing a chapter on football pools. (Mass-Observation Archive)

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